The use and usefulness of carbon labelling food: A policy perspective from a survey of UK supermarket shoppers
Both the process of carbon footprinting and carbon labelling of food products are currently voluntary in the UK. Both processes derive from the UK’s policy for sustainable development and in particular, the UK’s Framework for Environmental Behaviours that strongly advocates a social marketing approach towards behavioural change. This paper examines whether carbon footprinting and labelling food products, borne from an overarching policy imperative to decarbonise food systems, is a tool that will actively facilitate consumers to make ‘greener’ purchasing decisions and whether this is a sensible way of trying to achieve to a low carbon future. We do so by drawing from a survey exploring purchasing habits and perceptions in relation to various sustainability credentials of food products and particularly ‘carbon’, using a combination of descriptive and cluster analysis. The data, from 428 UK supermarket shoppers, reveals that whilst consumer demand is relatively strong for carbon labels with a stated preference rate of 72%, confusion in interpreting and understanding labels is correspondingly high at a total of 89%, primarily as a result of poor communication and market proliferation. Three statistically distinct clusters were produced from the cluster analysis, representing taxonomies of consumers with quite different attitudes to carbon and other wider sustainability issues. Whilst the majority of consumers are likely to react positively to further carbon labelling of food products, this in itself is unlikely to drive much change in food systems. As such, the data imply that a concerted policy drive to decarbonise food systems via voluntary carbon footprinting and labelling policy initiatives is limited by a fragmented and haphazard market approach where retailers are being careful not to disaffect certain products by labelling others within the same category. Consumers may want to make choices based on the carbon footprint of products but do not feel empowered to do so and relying on consumer guilt is inappropriate. The paper concludes that the establishment of effective linkages between food policy and food market actors to drive a targeted and coherent carbon labelling policy is needed. This would provide consumers with the opportunity to make informed choices, especially within food product categories and negate the need for retailers to depend on the demand side of the supply chain to achieve carbon reduction targets.
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